In the Name of the Living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I really only have one thing to say in the little homily, and it’s this: God loves imperfect people!
The pharisees (you remember them) saw this as Jesus’ great character flaw, because he hung out, and even partied with, sinners! But you and I rejoice. We lay on a weekly extravaganza every single Sunday – because the “Friend of sinners” hosts a banquet for the redeemed on that altar.
Another way to say what I want to say is this: God’s grace is greater than my sin—greater than your sin. And this is the bedrock of Christian joy.
In the early 60’s Marvin Gaye – yes, Marvin Gaye – wrote at least fifty songs about unrequited love – about relentless, unreciprocated love. But the lyrics can also be understood as odes to grace:
“Cause baby there ain’t no mountain high enough
Ain’t no valley low enough
Ain’t no river wide enough
To keep me from getting to you.”
He saved the best until 1965, with his number one hit:
“How sweet it is to be loved by you
I needed the shelter of someone’s arms and there you were
I needed someone to understand my ups and downs
And there you were
With sweet love and devotion
Deeply touching my emotion.”
About 2,500 years ago, it was the prophet Jeremiah who was looking for someone to deeply touch his emotion.
One morning he woke up on the wrong side of the bed – like we all do from time to time – and he confessed the severity of his distress: “My joy is gone, grief is upon me; my heart is sick.”
Now, the half-pagan, modern (quasi-Buddhist!) spiritualist in each of us wants to say, “Hey, Jeremy, simmer down, bro; don’t be so negative.”
But, what we really ought to do is thank him and buy him a beer for his honesty. Thank you, Jeremiah – thanks be to God – you didn’t ask us to buy books by Norman Vincent Peale, although thinking positively is certainly not a bad thing. Thank you for being real with us – for giving us space to confront our own, innermost distress.
Israel, God’s elect nation, was being destroyed before his eyes – destruction, desecration and despair. And it was all because they said “no thank you” to God. First, Jeremiah saw Judah suffer an embarrassing defeat to Egypt before then watching Jerusalem, and the temple, fall to the Babylonians. Rembrandt, who certainly wasn’t there, has captured it best. Go to Amsterdam and see the painting called “Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem,” from 1630, and you’ll see Jeremiah with his head in his hands (raising children can prompt that posture, too).
And, in the midst of deep and genuine lament, he goes on to ask something we all eventually ask.
Sooner or later, all of us will wake up looking for someone – something or some former glory – to touch our emotion, to lift our spirits and make us happy once again. “Say the things you used to say, and make the world go away” is how Eddy Arnold crooned it in 1965.
One dreary morning, overwhelmed by vexations of a thousand kind – just like Jeremiah – we all wake up looking for an emotional rescue (thank you, Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones).
“Ring-a-round the rosy. A pocket full of posies. Ashes, ashes we all fall down.”
What every human eventually asks is the very same thing that Jeremiah did: “is there no balm in Gilead?”
I doubt you and I are as fabulously poetic, but the plea is the same: who is it, or what is it, that can transform my lament-filled situation?
Edgar Allen Poe (he was a severely depressed Episcopalian, by the way) took the question to a whole new level. In the “Raven,” he wrote: “On this home by horror haunted – tell me truly, I implore – is there – is there balm in Gilead? Tell me, tell me, I implore!”
Let me cut to the chase: what is this balm? And, no, I’m not talking about the balsam trees on the east shore of the River Jordan that produce healing ointment. I’m talking about something 10,000 times – a million times – more powerful than even TNT!
The only solution to lament and sin-sick despair – the one and only appointed therapy that can permanently relieve the sometimes-unbearable weight of sin and grief – is never found within ourselves. It is the free gift of God – the word of grace and salvation—the cross of Jesus Christ that turns Jeremiah’s dark question mark into the ultimate exclamation point of joy and reassurance.
When he was on his deathbed, they asked John Newton – the former slave-trader who finally got hooked on grace (he wrote “Amazing Grace”) if he had anything else to say.
Old tired, dying John rose up in his bed, gathered himself, and said, “Although my memory’s fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.”
Earlier this week, my daughter Camille, who can be the sweetest, most cuddly 4th grade daughter ever, came into my room and asked if she could comb my hair and massage my scalp. I gladly accepted, and she went to work. Just as I was dozing off, she started combing this gray patch, and she stopped and said, “Dad, how would you describe yourself?” I thought I had a chance for a teaching moment, so I said, “well, I would say that I’m forgiven by the shed blood of the lamb.” And Camille said, “that’s good, because you are never going to be sexy.”
The blood of Jesus Christ – that precious, precious blood, cleanses me – cleanses you – from all sin…sins of omission, sins of commission, sins yesterday, sins today and sins tomorrow. “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).
Let me go back to where I began. God loves – God saves – imperfect people.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Charleston D. Wilson
Church of the Redeemer
15 Sunday after Pentecost
22 September 2019